The New Years tradition in Italy

by Maria Lamkin

December 1999


A festival that derives from ancestral traditions, New Year’s Day (or as the Italians say "Capodanno," meaning "head of the year") is celebrated with rites meant to propitiate one’s fate in the year that is about to start. The most widely known among such customs are the exchange of toasts, the drawing of the "sorti" or of lots (nowadays replaced by the drawing of the numbers of "Tombola"), and the study of omens (the place of which has been taken, as we all know, by the feverish consultation of astrological forecasts).

Another widespread custom consists in the giving of mistletoe, which in part calls to our mind the beliefs of the ancient Druids. As we attribute magic powers to its berries, we offer it to wish happiness and prosperity for the new year. In times of economic contingency it would be a good idea to hand out even more of it (in spite of the reservations of ecologists….). In the Anglo-Saxon countries it is only lovers who kiss under the mistletoe and the holly. Wouldn't it be meaningful if under it we could kiss those unpleasant neighbors with whom we always disagree during condominium meetings?

For Capodanno houses and roads are still embellished with the "Poinsettia" (called "Stella di Natale"), customarily used at Christmas but kept as a decoration until Epiphany and beyond. Poinsettias now come not only in red but also in white, light pink, or pink and white.

Red predominates on this day as it often does throughout the season. In the past most of the decorations for Christmas were in fact red and gold; in spite of some changes in the past few years, red still plays the leading role when it comes to the lingerie worn on the Eve (and - why not? - even on New Year's Day). Yes, that’s precisely the must: for one to be lucky during the new year one needs to use red underwear. This relatively recent tradition, which at first only applied to lovers, is now a commonplace for everybody.

The arrival of Capodanno is always celebrated with great gusto. A tradition called "Lo Sciuscio" originated in Naples and, having died out there, is still thriving in the town where I reside. "Lo Sciuscio" is the denomination given to each of the groups of musicians, usually amateurs, that go from house to house playing and singing. They tour the city on December 31st; their tunes and homemade instruments are meant to bring good luck throughout the New Year and to turn them away may bring bad luck (you do not really want to find out at your own expense whether or not this is true, do you?). Nowadays these groups are mainly composed of children; after their performance they expect to receive from the head of the household or the shopkeeper a small gift of money or sweets.

Guests of private and public parties are often entertained with a game called "Tombola" which is quite similar to "Bingo." “Tombola”can be a lot of fun in that each number is linked with a particular symbol; instead of calling out numbers players may thus call out what it represents (90 is "fear," 47 is "dead man who speaks," and so on.)

Superstitions abound in the meal of the Eve and in everything else that people do on this day and on the following one. The dishes that are served consist mainly of seafood, with particular importance being given to a type of eel called "capitone."

Alternatively, or additionally, two special sausages are served, of which the one ("cotechino") is stuffed in the skin and the other ("zampone") in the foot of a pig; they are said to bring their riches during the next year. Even the lentils with which they "must" be served are supposed to represent money. The best quality of lentils comes from a small island in the Pontine archipelago called Ventotene, but the ones from Pantelleria are just as fine. The meal ends with dry nuts and grapes.

Sweets and cakes are still, of course, de rigueur: to those which we already savored at Christmas we now have to add "Struffoli." This cake of Neapolitan origin is made of small balls fried in hot oil, placed on a serving plate, and completely covered with honey (the small balls and the considerable amount of honey symbolizing, once again, monetary wealth). Even in this case a dish which originally was characteristic of Christmas accompanies us through Capodanno as well, being prepared and served not only in the areas in which it originated but in other centers too. Last but not least is "spumante." This sparkling white wine similar to champagne is made in Italy and is traditionally used for toasting and celebrating. How appropriate on a night like this, when we wish to warm up hearts and palates!

Outside, the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one are mostly ushered in by fireworks (which in some areas are loud but always heartwarming) and by ships blowing their horns. And beware: in some centers this moment is still celebrated by throwing downstairs anything you have in the house and may wish to rid yourself of (your mother-in-law? your wife? your son's noisy trumpet?). Just think: in the past it was customary to throw out of the window even objects which were not exactly light, such as pans, pots, and plates. There are even people who swear they have seen bathtubs. It goes without saying that nowadays the followers of this tradition only rid themselves of light objects that would not damage anything or anybody.

Mirth abounds both in houses and in public gathering places; the Eve’s parties (called "Veglioni") are often held until the wee hours of January 1st, as the habit is to stay awake until then and to watch the first sunrise of the newborn year. At home, the stroke of midnight is celebrated with lots of spumante and especially with grapes (to abound with, because each grape represents wealth that will be acquired during the new year). I can testify that with the lentils, the pig meat, the cakes, the spumante, and the grapes, it can be dangerous to be around your guests, especially if they have also enjoyed some of that delicious wine you have kept in your cellar for a whole year…

Late in the morning, and after so much merrymaking, only children and middle-aged people (who are more liable not to have attended "Veglioni") are wide awake. Despite the general relaxation, however, we all suddenly become quite alert. What has happened? The air has been made more festive by the notes of the "Concert for the New Year". Held in Vienna every Capodanno, this show focuses on the performance of the most famous and lively pieces (especially waltzes and marches) written by the various composers of the Strauss family. Of course, there are also those who sanctify the day by attending solemn Masses. Once all of this is over everybody is ready for the dinner of New Year's Day which features more or less the same foods already at the core of the Eve. Bon appetit!

And do not forget: today you should make plans for the new year and should especially do a bit of all the things you may wish to do during the 364 days to follow (and please, do not pay bills! You may risk having to do it every day of the new year!)


Maria Lamkin can be reached at lamkin@uni.net